Nicolas Wickham-Irving – plays Chopin – CB5259


“All doors are open for Nicolas”

Arthur Rubinstein

“The musician is as the man – Warm-hearted, perceptive and wise, from a life-time’s study”

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The four Ballades and the Fantaisie Op.49 span the mature years of Chopin’s working life. A comparison between the three Ecossaises written at the age of 18 and the three Mazurkas Op.56, show us the journey he made. It is interesting that although Chopin composed three sonatas over the twenty years of his working life, it is the development of the genre pieces (the Nocturnes, Scherzi, Ballades, Polonaises, etc) from simple Rondo type movements to the complex structures he composed using the elements of sonata form to give a coherence and unity that other composers lack. Compare Liszt’s Etudes and Ballades with those of Chopin.

It is also interesting that Chopin, though so deeply involved with the writer Georges Sand, showed little interest in literature. It is in vain to look for a narrative poem behind the Ballades, no story is being told, and there is no narrator. It is Chopin’s interior world that the music depicts, and it is in the present tense, and not in the past. Compare Brahms’s Ballade ‘Edouard’.

Ballade No.1 (1833)

The first Ballade opens with a confident sweep of the keyboard, misleading us, for confidence evaporates, the brave key of A flat dissolves into the pain and grief of the home key of G minor, of which it is the Neopolitan sixth. The question is on the up beat and the answer is on the down. The mood changes from a dreamy elegiac quality through stormy passage work to the calm of the second subject, a broad and peaceful tune, dying away and rebuilding itself to emerge triumphant in A major. Another sleight of hand, and the music whisks us to an elegant glittering ballroom. The second subject returns exultant but recedes into the sadness of the opening melody.

The coda is a Marche aux Supplice as terrifying as that of Berlioz, complete with jeering crowds, despairing cries and rattling guillotine. Chopin was living in Paris thirty years after the Terror, closer than we are to the horror of Auschwitz.

Ballade No.2 (1839)

Dedicated to Robert Schumann, this work is a tribute to Florestan and Eusebius in that the warring elements of Chopin’s musical character are not fused together but kept apart.

The opening, a peaceful innocent Siciliano moving in long paragraphs, is swept aside by a violent storm that wears itself out, yielding to the gentle but firm rhythm of the Siciliano. This time the Siciliano builds up to a climax the second time around leading back to the Presto con Fuoco. The storm continues in the Coda where it suddenly exhausts itself yielding a last time to the Siciliano.

Ballade No.3 (1841)

This Ballade begins with a duet between the treble and the tenor. The treble rises and the tenor’s reply falls. After these placid eight bars the character of the music changes, though playful, it is proud and impatient. The opening theme is repeated, the key changes C major and we hear the lively, dancing second subject. This is extended and combined with material from the opening subjects until the key switches back to A flat for the first episode, happy elegant lyrical and sparkling, returning to the home key for another repeat of the second subject. The mood changes with the next episode as it modulates to C sharp minor bringing an atmosphere of menace. No longer dancing and playful the second subject is now a tomado. Tremendous energy drives the music forward, the two themes are combined against a veritable gale of chromatic passages. This storm dissolves into a triumphant return of the opening, now radiant and ecstatic.

Ballade No.4 (1842)

The most refined and subtle of the four Ballades. The opening notes should steal on our ears as though already sounding. After an imperfect cadence, a long winding questioning theme and its answer is heard. Another imperfect cadence leads to the first repeat of the melody decorated with chromatic passing notes. The key shifts to G flat for the mysterious first episode. The imperfect cadence leads us back to the theme with its harmonies decorated. This return of the theme slowly builds up to a tremendous climax, when the music winds down, leading us into the second subject, a quiet peaceful Siciliano.

An agitated passage follows, at times turbulent, at times playful, bringing us back to the music of the introduction, now in the remote key of A major. A short cadenza prepares us for the main theme treated canonically, each repeat modulating towards the tonic for its final variation decorated and embroidered in the most subtle bel canto style.

The second subject returns in the key of D Flat, cool and peaceful before the awe-inspiring climax, the last imperfect cadence. The coda releases all restraints on Chopin’s emotions, a terrifying picture of Hell, his rage at his body’s extinction.

Fantaisie Opus 49 in F minor (1841)

In this piece, Chopin develops the free extemporary structures of the Fantasias of Bach and Mozart to one of organic growth. The opening, Marcia begins with falling fourths in unison, answered by a rising curve to a dotted rhythm at a tempo marked Grave.

Madame D’ Agoult’s famous account of how she and Liszt interrupted Chopin as he worked on this piece rings true, though she may not have noticed Chopin’s fury at their intrusion.

The March continues, keeping the rhythm and the falling fourths to end the phrases, in a more resigned mood until the rhythm ebbs away. But the musical tide turns and in twelve bars the tempo doubles to introduce us to the material of the second subject, leading off with a falling fourth, and followed by a rising melody related to the second half of the main theme now in A flat.

Impassioned passages working through the gamut of emotions lead us back to the second subject now in C minor with the reply in G flat. This time the impassioned passages wear themselves out, dying away in G flat. An enharmonic modulation enables the music to slip peacefully into B major for the Lento middle section, an interlude of tranquil beauty. It closes with an imperfect cadence interrupted by the angry arpeggios of the second subject. The first motif is heard again in B flat minor modulating to D flat for the final appearance of its answer. This is a full sonata form recapitulation, save that we are not yet in the tonic key. With a triumphant variant of the second subject in A flat, we perhaps feel that we are near it, but a terrible eruption of despair and rage bursts into the music and we are carried away down into Hell,a journey as awful of that of Faust. A rising voice brings us a message of peace before the music whisks itself away. 2002 © Nicolas Wickham-Irving.

Nicolas Wickham-Irving was born in London and educated at the Leys School, Cambridge. At the age of 16, he won a place to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano. On leaving the RAM he joined Ilona Kabos’s class, and when she left London, to take up a post at the Julliard School, he then began to work with Peter Feuchtwanger. Guided by Peter Feuchtwanger he has studied the original sources of the music and to find the composers’ true intentions.

Nicolas Wickham-Irving repertoire is eclectic, including many contemporary composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Michael Berkeley, Pendereski, and Ligeti. For thirty years Nicolas combined a variety of interesting teaching posts, whilst working as a chamber musician and accompanist. In the last few years he has made successful debut concerts in Paris (1995) Vienna (1996),San Francisco (1997). He regularly plays at the London Concert Halls and at Music Clubs throughout the country.

Review: I – Arthur Rubinstein

“All doors are open for Nicolas”

Review: II – Rosalyn Tureck

“The musician is as the man – Warm-hearted, perceptive and wise, from a life-time’s study”